The widespread blur of satellite photos reveals the location of secret bases

Original author: Matt Korda
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How to intrigue an analyst dealing with satellite photos? Blur them.


Google Earth periodically blurs a photo at the request of a government that wants to prevent curious eyes from exploring some of the most sensitive military or political sites. France, for example, asked Google to shade the entire image of prisons, after the French gangster successfully organized a jailbreak inspired by Hollywood: he used drones, smoke bombs and even a stolen helicopter - and Google agreed to do so before the end of 2018. According to the same scheme, the old law in the Netherlands requires local companies to blur satellite photographs with military and royal objects - once even the company providing satellite photographs has editedphoto, which fell on the air base Volkel, after this photo acquired Hans Christensen .

Yandex.Maps - Russia's largest mapping service - also agreed to selectively blur certain places on the map so that they could not be recognized. However, he did it only for two countries - Israel and Turkey. The blurred areas vary from large complexes — airfields or ammunition depots — to small, unremarkable buildings in cities.

Camp Glilot, the headquarters of elite Israeli intelligence, located north of Tel Aviv. On Yandex, images are blurred, they are visible on Google.

Although blurring certain places is a rare practice, it is not unusual for satellite image providers to degrade the resolution of certain photos before releasing them to public platforms like Yandex or Google Earth. While combing the globe with the help of these services, one can notice that different places are represented in different resolutions. For example, the business district of Toronto is visible in extremely high resolution. If you look closely, you can see my bike, parked next to my old apartment. Conversely, photos of the suburbs of Jerusalem are always more blurred, they can barely be seen parked cars on the sidelines.

On the left - Toronto, on the right - Jerusalem

As I described earlier, the American law of 1997, known as the Kila-Bingaman Amendment (KBA), prohibits American companies from publishing satellite photographs of Israel with a resolution higher than that of commercially available photographs. This usually means that satellite companies, such as DigitalGlobe, and platforms for viewing, such as Google Earth, cannot publish Israel’s photos with a resolution better than 2 meters per pixel.

Non-US companies, such as Russian Yandex, are not required to adhere to this amendment, but they still usually adhere to a 2-m resolution, most likely for two reasons. First, after 20 years, the KBA standard has become generally accepted in the field of satellite photo. Secondly, Russian companies and Russia do not want to spoil relations with Israel.

However, Yandex went beyond simple photo quality degradation. Yandex, or its provider of photographs, Skaneks , blurred certain military buildings entirely. What is interesting, the same applies to photos of Turkey, which does not support any particular standards, and therefore is usually represented in the photo in high resolution.

Blurred Istanbul Quarter on Yandex.Maps

This blur was probably done at the request of Israel and Turkey; It is unlikely that a Russian company would engage in such a laborious business on its own initiative. Fortunately for open source intelligence, this has led to an unexpected effect of disclosing the location and exact perimeter of each significant military structure in these countries - if you are obsessed and curious enough to scroll through the entire map in search of blur. As a result, you can engage in analytics, comparing the blurry places with the non-blurred (albeit in low resolution) photos accessible through Google Earth.

In my list of blurred places in Israel and Turkey there are more than 300 buildings, airfields, ports, bunkers, warehouses, bases, barracks, nuclear facilities and random buildings - from which you can draw some interesting conclusions.

  • The list of places blurred by Yandex includes at least two NATO sites: Allied Land Command (LANDCOM) in Izmir and Incirlik Air Base , where the largest contingent of B61 nuclear bombs is located among all NATO bases:

  • Strange, but not a single Russian base is blurred in the photographs - including nuclear facilities, submarine bases, launch sites, air bases, military bases located abroad in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East.
  • Although Russia's permanent bases in Syria are not blurred, almost all of Syria is represented in very low resolution, due to which it is almost impossible to analyze images using Yandex. At the same time, Crimea and Donbass are presented in very high resolution, therefore this standard on blurring applies only to places of foreign adventures of Russia.
  • All four Israeli Patriot batteries, the search for which I described in the previous article , are blurred, which confirms the military purpose of these areas.

Patriot battery location near Mount Carmel in Haifa (Yandex)

If we put aside geopolitical intrigues regarding Russia's relations with Israel and Turkey, Yandex’s actions are a great example of the Streisand effect"In 2003, Barbara Streisand tried to sue a photographer who published photos of her Malibu mansion, demanding to pay her $ 10 million and remove photos from the Internet. Her actions had the opposite effect: she lost the case, she had to cover the defendant’s legal costs , and the hype that was raised attracted considerable traffic to the photo. Before the trial, this photo was viewed only six times (two of them are Streisand lawyers), and a month later the photo had already gained 420,000 views. This is a great example of how to try to hide something Bo with a high probability leads to unwanted attention to the object.

So with Yandex. In obedience to requests for selectively dimming military bases, the map service actually reveals their exact location, perimeter, and potential purpose to all curious enough people able to see them.

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